What Student-Driven Learning Actually Looks Like

Hint: It looks fun!

Editor’s note: The original publication of this post can be found at Fractus Learning.

Have you ever heard the quote, “When one teaches, two learn”? This supports the mindset of the idea that “the true strength in our classroom lies in the collaboration of learners, not in the knowledge of one expert.”  

Gone are the days where the teacher is the only expert in the classroom. Classrooms need to be a place of a community of learners—the teacher included.

The Methods of Teaching and Learning Need to Change

I become a bit giddy when I get to visit classrooms where the teacher already understands this—when a visitor has to look to the fringes to even find the teacher in the room. In one week of visiting Crowley ISD (TX), I witnessed the collaboration of learners in classes such as Math, World History, English, Audio/Visual Design, Computer Programming and Aerospace Engineering.

Aerospace Engineering Class

Students chose an aerospace advancement or achievement to research. Their teacher, Mr. P, gave them some guiding questions to use during the research but allowed them a choice in how they could present their learning to their peers. They had to be ready to justify why they selected that information to share. At the end of the project, the students will spend time reflecting and elaborating on what they could change and Proimprove creatively for the next project.

Computer Programming Class

Mr. R, the teacher, gave the students the mission of writing code for a BB8 Sphero robot. The students jumped right in and started figuring out how they were going to write the program. This is the decision-making process of programming. The objective was to use the Lightning Lab app to program the Sphero to move in a square down four different hallways. The students walked the halls, timing how long it took them to get to each intersection to use as a basis for their code. After writing the code for the Sphero, they took it out to the hall for the first trial. It was fascinating to watch the learning process unfurl organically as the students tested each program, collaborating on the successes, failures, and adjustments needed after each trial run.

Audio/Visual Design Class

This was so much fun. The students each researched an important historical event and then wrote a script for an episode of the television show, Timeless. The author of each script became the director. They cast the episode and assigned roles to the other students in the class. Here, the Author-Director is laying out scenes with her actors while her Director of Photography gets photos for her storyboard.

The writers had to work with a $0 budget and spent time walking around the school to block where different scenes would be shot. For the episode I watched being laid out, scene locations included their classroom being converted into an Apple Store, an outside corner of the building being used as the backdrop of an alley in New York City, and a science lab being staged as a classroom. Mr. M, the teacher was a strategic observer as the students were making decisions about their personal projects in real-time. Other students offered opinions and insight as the scene unfolded.

That’s Great for Electives, but What About Core Subjects?

I know some teachers may be thinking this—how can I give up control when I have so many standards to meet prior to state testing? Great questions, but not very valid when talking with those teachers who are doing just that.

Ninth Grade Math

One teacher I know has made intentional changes this school year to move from teacher-directed instruction towards student-driven learning. Recently, she assigned her students to work with a partner to create a PowerPoint to show the Laws of Exponents. At the end of their PowerPoints, they have to ask questions that their peers should be able to answer from the content of the presentation. These questions at the end are essential to getting the students to think at higher levels. Students will conduct a peer review using a teacher-created rubric to evaluate Content, Slide Creation, Slide Transitions, Images, Grammar mechanics, and Tech Connection.

After talking with Ms. W, she shared her desire to offer more student choice next time by letting them select the platform for the presentation. This is a great next step, and it may require her demonstrating how to use something (i.e. Comic Strips, Prezi, etc.), and restricting their use of PowerPoint. Otherwise, most students will stick with what is “safe” and what they are most familiar with. I also suggested getting the students to provide input in constructing the next rubric, so they are driving the assessment as well. As an interesting side note, Ms. W communicates with students outside of class via Remind and Kik, encouraging communication and collaboration beyond the classroom walls.

Ms. V’s AP World History Class

I always enjoy visiting this class. My most recent trip showed the beginnings of an Interest Group Research Project. Students chose their groups (with 2–4 members), chose their interest group, and then discussed how they would present their project (live action vs. animated). Their mission was to research a group and then create a commercial in order to persuade and entice people to join their group. In addition to the commercial, groups must turn in a two-page typed essay answering the teacher-created questions to show thorough research. They were given one week to complete both portions of the project. Too often, projects are given too much time, drawing out the process and killing the engagement level. One week was sufficient time to research and produce their learning while maintaining interest in the project. As a result, the class will learn about fifteen different political interest groups while driving that learning themselves.

They were given one week to complete both portions of the project. Too often, projects are given too much time, drawing out the process and killing the engagement level. One week was sufficient time to research and produce their learning while maintaining interest in the project. As a result, the class will learn about fifteen different political interest groups while driving that learning themselves.

Remedial/Target English Class

Ms. M teaches this high school class where she is now focusing on student-driven activities for research, communication, critical thinking, and innovation. While I was visiting she assigned a research project that students will complete using PowerPoint. Each pair chose a persuasive speech topic; they will create an original PowerPoint supporting their opinions and have to research data for one of their reasons. Then, they can research more information, but by requiring at least one rationale they are able to practice citing sources including pictures/videos. In addition to research, students are required to incorporate slide transitions, animations, picture and videos to enhance their PowerPoint.

For the next project, she may consider opening up presentation platform choice to include more options, maybe even stepping away from Prezi/PowerPoint format altogether. This was a great choice of assignment as it enabled the students to concentrate on research and persuasion strategies.

The Move Toward a Student-Driven Learning Environment

I get to work with teachers all over the United States. These are only a few snippets of what I get to experience watching them move toward a student-driven learning environment. They share a common mindset of wanting to create space for students to be engaged in their learning by taking ownership over it. Traditional teacher-directed classrooms are not necessary for, and actually prohibit, success on standardized testing. Deeper connections are made through authentic learning experiences. These teachers understood that and they have the pleasure of watching those connections happen in the minds of their students.

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